Drive-Away Dolls review: "Ethan Coen's frivolous frolic is a comedy steeped in déjà vu"

Drive Away Dolls
(Image: © Universal)

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Ethan Coen strikes out on his own with a frivolous frolic that wears its slightness like a badge of honour.

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It perhaps says something about the Coen brothers’ respective sensibilities that, when older sibling Joel went off to make 2021’s The Tragedy of Macbeth in black and white with wife Frances McDormand, younger brother Ethan chose to dust off a raunchy crime romp he had written with his wife 20 years ago and shoot it in eye-popping color. 

A freewheeling road movie about two queer chums being pursued by hoods from Pennsylvania to Florida, Drive-Away Dolls is definitely not Shakespeare. But it is unmistakably a Coen(s) film, albeit one that feels more like a pastiche of their previous pictures than the innovative next chapter in their eclectic collective oeuvre.

There are times when ‘Throw-Away Dolls’ might arguably have been a more suitable title for this knockabout caper, in which loquacious Texan Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and her prim friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) take an impromptu road trip from Philadelphia to Tallahassee in a rental car that just happens to have a sought-after suitcase secreted in its trunk. 

Said valise, and its contents, are prized enough for a sharp-suited mandarin dubbed ‘The Chief’ (Colman Domingo) to send two bumbling goons to retrieve it. Jamie, meanwhile, has her own mission improbable: to get Marian laid.

When Tricia Cooke – Ethan’s spouse, the Coens’ sometime editor and a person who identifies as queer – conceived the film’s scenario, it carried the more provocative moniker Drive-Away Dykes. Curiously, though, it’s more quaint than outrageous, its 1999 setting and saucy details (a wall-mounted dildo here, a Sapphic slumber party there) lending it the air of a bawdy period piece from the Porky’s and Meatballs era. 

Coen and Cooke’s stated aim was to homage both the trashy aesthetics of John Waters and early Almodóvar and such noted ‘sexploitation’ purveyors as Russ Meyer and Doris Wishman. In this they are mostly successful, but it comes at the cost of their collaboration having a distinctive timbre of its own.

Throw in a luggage-sized McGuffin straight out of Pulp Fiction and we’re left with a comedy steeped in déjà vu. There is no denying, though, that Qualley and Viswanathan make a highly likable duo in a film that also boasts entertaining cameos from the likes of Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal and pop star Miley Cyrus.

Drive-Away Dolls is in US theaters on February 23 and in UK cinemas on March 15. 

For more upcoming movies, check out our guide to 2024 movie release dates.

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Freelance Writer

Neil Smith is a freelance film critic who has written for several publications, including Total Film. His bylines can be found at the BBC, Film 4 Independent, Uncut Magazine, SFX Magazine, Heat Magazine, Popcorn, and more.